VALRICO — The shrill ring of the phone woke Gwen Mickens from a dead sleep early on Dec. 22, 2010. Though drowsy, she somehow knew this was the call she had dreamed of for more than a year.
By the end of that day, the 45-year-old had a new kidney sewn in below her belly.
"Oh, my God," she said in a recent interview. "That was the best Christmas gift."
At the hospital, Mickens excitedly called her friend Melissa Bias, 42, of Seffner to talk about how great life after the transplant would be.
They had endured dialysis together, sitting side by side for hours while machines made up for what their kidneys refused to do. They talked about their kids and Bias' romances and finishing college degrees. They bolstered each other when being sick took its toll, sapping energy and faith.
But after all they went through together, only one of them was getting the transplant they both needed.
• • •
In March 2010, the kidney patients shared the story of their friendship with the Brandon & South Shore Times. It all started at the DSI Renal Center in Seffner, where the two women spent hours hooked up on dialysis.
"We'd talk," Mickens told the Times. "Because we'd talk, the time would pass."
Mickens dealt with polycystic kidney disease, a hereditary condition. Bias battled an avalanche of health problems, including a brain aneurysm that led to a failed kidney transplant and grand mal seizures.
Kidneys, organs the size of a fist, filter and remove waste and excess fluids from the body. More than 367,000 Americans receive dialysis treatments after renal failure, according to the National Kidney Foundation. Kidneys are the most commonly donated organ, the foundation reported, but more than 89,000 people in the country are still waiting for one.
With high levels of antibodies from blood transfusions, Bias' body wasn't ready to accept a donated organ.
Through online research, Mickens found a clinical trial at Johns Hopkins University that could lower antibody levels to make Bias eligible for another kidney transplant.
In May 2010, the two spent a chilly day and a half in Maryland while doctors ran tests on Bias.
And this is what they told her: She didn't match a single donor in the entire country.
"That's hard," Bias said softly. "It's a lot of heartbreak."
• • •
Having struggled with health issues since her first pregnancy at 24, Bias says she's lucky, really.
"I am a miracle," she said in a recent interview. "It's just a part of me. I've accepted it."
Bias says she was happy for Mickens to get a kidney transplant. But there's a question, Mickens says, that everyone has when someone else gets that gift: "When is it going to be my turn?"
For Bias, it could be months. It could be years, or it could be never.
A lot of hospitals called after Johns Hopkins, Bias said. But she stayed with the trial, because they told her that if this doesn't work, they'll find another way.
She's almost ready to start the medicines to decrease her antibody levels. After that, she hopes to make another trip to Maryland — this time, for a kidney transplant.
• • •
Mickens has a scar where her new kidney is nestled in her body. The transplant, she says, changed her life immediately.
"Bam," she said, proudly and happily. "I hit it. I peed right away."
It was a sign, a victory that her organs were properly rerouted to the transplant. Since then, she stays hydrated and takes antirejection medicines, careful to protect the kidney that now "feels completely part of me," she said.
Her Christmas gift came from an 11-year-old boy whom doctors removed from life support, Mickens said.
"He's continuing his life through me," she said. "If he hadn't been on a roller coaster, he has been on a roller coaster with me."
Without the dizzy spells that once plagued her, Mickens can concentrate. She takes online classes through St. Petersburg College toward a degree in health information management.
It took her a long time to go back to the dialysis center to visit with her friends.
"It makes me sad to see them still there," she said.
Now healthy, Mickens drives Bias to some of her dialysis appointments. She sells melting candy on hot summer days to raise money for Bias' trips. And most of all, "when you (don't) believe in yourself," Bias said, "she makes you believe."
Stephanie Wang can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2443.